Despite turmoil, Iran increases its import purchases from U.S.

WASHINGTON — Iran spent nearly twice as much on U.S. imports during President Barack Obama's first months in office as it did during the same period in 2008, showing that despite trade penalties and tense relations, the two countries are still doing business.

The U.S. exported $96 million in goods to Iran from January through April, according to an Associated Press analysis of U.S. government trade data compiled by the World Institute for Strategic Economic Research in Holyoke, Mass. U.S. exports to Iran totaled $51 million during the same period in 2008 and $27 million over those months in 2007.

Soybeans, wheat and medical supplies — all considered humanitarian items exempt from U.S. trade sanctions — are among the top exports.

The latest trade figures reflect an increase in Iran's agricultural imports over the past year due to poor harvests there, said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a business group in Washington.

"I wouldn't read too much into it as far as trends are concerned," Reinsch said.

Reinsch said he is hearing from more businesses interested in Iran. But beyond an effort by the Obama administration to encourage talks with Iran, he hasn't seen any policy changes that would lead to opportunities for U.S. businesses.

In allowing exports of necessities such as grain and medical supplies, the U.S. has tried to send a message to the Iranian people that it is a friend to them and has no interest in punishing them for their government's policies. At the same time, by helping Iran feed and provide medical care to its population, Washington can't help but provide an unintentional benefit to the Tehran government.

Several countries have been more than willing to do business with Iran. Those exporting more than $1 billion in goods to Iran last year included China, $8 billion; Germany, $5.7 billion; Italy, $3.2 billion; France, $2.6 billion; and Japan, $1.9 billion.

That compares with about $747 million in exports to Iran by Britain, $689 million by Belgium, about $685 million by Spain and $683 million by the U.S.

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